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Working It Out: Building Fitness Into Graduate School Life

Prioritizing fitness during grad school.

June 8, 2017
 
 

Florianne Jimenez is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can find her on Twitter: @bopeepery.

Graduate school is an incredibly exciting time: we’re surrounded by colleagues who are working towards the same goal, we might form friendships that last a lifetime, and we get to live and work around a university or college, where there’s always something going on. Unfortunately, it can also be an incredibly sedentary lifestyle – we tend to sit for hours and hours just reading and writing, skip meals or order takeout just to save time, or cut out exercise because we can’t fit it into our schedules. If we’re not careful, we can fall into unhealthy patterns that allow us to get our work done, but also neglect our bodies.

 

I didn’t always view working out as an essential part of graduate school. I always considered it an activity that would be nice to do if I found the time or energy. Unsurprisingly, when I put exercise in the “if I find the time/energy” category, I rarely did it, and it definitely affected me physically and emotionally. I was sluggish and sleepy all the time, and I fell into bad moods very quickly and with very little reason. When I made a few changes and built exercise into my lifestyle, my productivity increased. At present, I work out about 4-6 times a week. I do yoga, tabata, kickboxing, spin, and barre classes, and (mostly) get all my work done. This state of mind (and body) didn’t happen overnight. Getting myself to actually care about fitness was a long journey, and it’s a journey that I’m rediscovering all the time. Below are a few things I learned about actively pursuing fitness while in graduate school:

 

Start small.

When you start working out, there’s also a huge temptation to do a massive overhaul of your lifestyle. You want to start going to the gym five days a week, AND prep healthy meals in large batches, AND start drinking those disgusting-looking green shakes, AND use a standing desk, AND bike to work… the list can go on and on. You’re more likely to make a change permanent if you limit yourself to one small, manageable goal at a time, especially if it’s a goal that meets you where you are. If you’re completely new to exercise, you might want to limit your exercise goals to a week at a time: “I’ll go to the gym twice this week,” or “I’ll set up a meeting with a trainer” are examples of small, measurable, and doable goals. Once you’ve started to make exercise a habit, that’s when it’s easier to add on other lifestyle changes.

 

Do it the way you want.

The amazing thing about exercise is that there are so many ways to do it. The challenge is doing it the way you want. Some people thrive in group fitness classes, while others hate the idea of being around other people when they work out. Some people love high intensity and high adrenaline workouts like tabata, spinning, and kickboxing, while others need more meditative workouts like yoga and pilates. Whatever way you want to work out, being bored and uncomfortable during exercise is the number one way to make sure you don’t stick with it. Spend some time researching and trying out different exercise styles and settings until you figure out what you enjoy.

 

Be realistic about your budget.

Working out can get expensive very quickly. A gym membership alone can be over $100 a month, and that’s before signing up for personal training, buying workout clothes, and getting additional equipment like foam rollers and mats. Before you sign up for that gym or personal trainer, think about whether you can spend that much on exercise. There’s nothing wrong with joining a gym, but if paying for it is going to stress you out and make you resentful towards exercise, then you might want to rethink your approach. The most cost-effective option is usually the gym at your university or college. They usually offer the lowest prices on memberships and personal training in the area for students, faculty, and staff. Or, if the idea of running into your students at the gym is too much, do some research on gyms in your area and see if they offer student discounts and/or class packages that work for you. Some yoga studios or gyms might even offer an exchange deal for students. I spent one summer cleaning a yoga studio a few times a week in exchange for free classes. Look around and see what’s out there, and more importantly, ask around. Whatever gym or studio you sign up for, insist on taking a tour of the facilities and doing a trial day or two before you commit to putting money down.

 

Working out doesn’t have to cost anything either. YouTube is a godsend for anyone who wants to work out at home on their own schedule. Before I found a yoga studio in my area that I liked, I started doing yoga at home with YogaWithAdriene. She has an extensive back catalog of 30-day yoga challenges, a mix of short, long, beginner, intermediate, and advanced videos, and has a great instructor persona. When I started doing more high intensity and plyometric workouts about three years ago, I subscribed to FitnessBlender.com, which has different workout styles, intensities, and lengths to choose from. FitnessBlender even has a few options for low impact (read: no jumping!) workouts, which are great if you don’t want to wake your roommates or downstairs neighbors. I highly recommend bookmarking a few videos that you like and building a weekly schedule of which ones to do. It’ll save you time and energy on scrolling through YouTube and deciding which one to do that day.

 

Set aside time for it.

There’s no way around it: exercise will take up time, and sometimes, more time than you think. There’s the actual workout time itself, but you also need to account for the time you need to get to and from the gym, stretching and cooling down (don’t skip those!), showering and changing afterwards, and recovery activities like foam rolling and refueling. Build all of that time into your decision-making. Should you go with the gym that’s slightly out of your way but has a huge shower and locker room, or the gym that’s on your way to and from school but always has a line for the one shower? Do you mind bringing all your clothes, shoes, makeup, and toiletries to the gym, or would you rather stop at home and get dressed there? Or would you rather save on travel time and work out at home? Whatever option you go with, be realistic about how much time you can devote to exercise, and plan around that.

 

Waking up early to exercise (plus a bunch of other things) has been thrown around as a productivity tip, but I think this advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Personally, early morning workouts just don’t work with my body (in terms of drowsiness, how I metabolize food, etc.), and I’ve started working out closer to mid-morning and early in the evening. I had to figure that out through a lot of trial and error (e.g. missed alarms, workouts with light-headedness because of low blood sugar, repeatedly pressing the snooze button), but I’ve generally accepted that working out early in the morning just isn’t for me.

 

My personal favorite: The little bit that goes a long way.

In a perfect world, graduate school would let us devote two to three hours to self-care everyday. However, we all live in a far from perfect world where we have to juggle multiple commitments and rush from one appointment to another everyday. When I’m pressed for time, I opt for HIIT (high intensity interval training) routines. HIIT is a kind of training that’s done at a high rate of exertion (think 90-95% effort) for very short periods of time. It’s designed to get you working and sweating immediately, and to train your body to handle high rates of stress. Some routines can be done in just 7 minutes! I prefer to stretch my HIIT workouts to about 20-30 minutes, but it still follows the same principle: work real hard, but get it done fast. I highly recommend HIIT, but with the caveat that you should check in with a doctor and/or professional to see whether this kind of training is right for you.

 

How do you fit exercise into your grad school life? Tell us in the Comments!

 

[Image by Flickr user Kevin Dooley and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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